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Cover for America Calling

America Calling

A Social History of the Telephone to 1940

Claude S. Fischer


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The telephone looms large in our lives, as ever present in modern societies as cars and television. Claude Fischer presents the first social history of this vital but little-studied technology—how we encountered, tested, and ultimately embraced it with enthusiasm. Using telephone ads, oral histories, telephone industry correspondence, and statistical data, Fischer's work is a colorful exploration of how, when, and why Americans started communicating in this radically new manner.

Studying three California communities, Fischer uncovers how the telephone became integrated into the private worlds and community activities of average Americans in the first decades of this century. Women were especially avid in their use, a phenomenon which the industry first vigorously discouraged and then later wholeheartedly promoted. Again and again Fischer finds that the telephone supported a wide-ranging network of social relations and played a crucial role in community life, especially for women, from organizing children's relationships and church activities to alleviating the loneliness and boredom of rural life.

Deftly written and meticulously researched, America Calling adds an important new chapter to the social history of our nation and illuminates a fundamental aspect of cultural modernism that is integral to contemporary life.

Praise For America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940

"A warning to those who see technology as having clear and far-reaching consequences in American life: Don't use the telephone as an obvious example. From a user-centered view of technological dispersion, the author argues convincingly that the telephone reinforced social and cultural patterns rather than changed them. . . . Well researched, with an excellent bibliography and fascinating endnotes, Fischer's study is likely to be a required purchase for comprehensive collections in sociology, business, and the history of technology. It is accessible, however, to a wider audience because of its readability."
— Library Journal

"Delightful. . . . A thought-provoking, often entertaining book that makes it impossible to take the telephone for granted."
— Milwaukee Journal

"Although it is impossible to reconstruct with complete accuracy how technologies were used and perceived decades ago, America Calling gives us a convincing picture of how a particular technology became part of everyday life." 
— Technology and Culture

". . . this innovative study advances our understanding of the social role of technology and is a significant contribution to the debate over the modernization process." 
— Journal of American History

"Professor Fischer's inquisitiveness is refreshing. Many of the methods in this path-breaking book (carefully documented in the text and in seven statistical appendices) are applicable to other social histories of technology; much more could be said about the facility with which he handles his subject's complexities, or about the useful contrasts he draws between the telephone and other space-transcending technologies." 
— Journal of Economic History

". . . a significant contribution to the historical and sociological understanding of technology and modernity." 
— Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"[An] insightful and thorough study. . ."
— Business History Review

"The book is a treat. Fischer should be the industrywide standard; fortunately, it's a very high standard that he has set." 
— Contemporary Sociology

"[American Calling] is to be highly recommended for its pioneering approach to the social history of a technology and for its many revisionist conclusions about over-worked concepts like modernity and the decline of community." 
— Journal of Social History

"Fischer's discussion of historiographic methods, insights into communication technology, and the use of positivistic and post–positivistic research can be an excellent model for technology education researchers. . . . America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940 is an excellent work of historical research that can offer important STS insights for technology education."
— Journal of Industrial Teacher Education

University of California Press, 9780520086470, 424pp.

Publication Date: March 22, 1994

About the Author

Claude S. Fischer is Professor of the Graduate School in Sociology, and the author of To Dwell among Friends: Personal Networks in Town and City (1982) and The Urban Experience (1984).